ANTHONY DALY: Epic hurling semi-finals were games of centimetres, not inches

I may need a night or two at the Fleadh Cheoil in Ennis this week after a pair of outrageous hurling highs at the weekend.

After that kind of experience on Saturday in Thurles, where do you go?

Well, back to Croke Park, if you’re lucky, with Galway and Tipperary back at it there. Hurling people are having some time of it...

I was on the road early because I needed a good look at the Tipperary minors in their tussle with Galway. Tipp gave Limerick a bit of a trimming in the Munster final, but we have bounced back into the All-Ireland final.

It was a weird game. Tipp scored seven goals. How often that happen at any level? But we’ll be there in three weeks’ time, and we’re under no illusions about the challenge facing us. Those Tipp minors are serious. If one of their forwards is not doing it, another steps up with the big scores.

With the senior, you’d nearly feel we were looking for too much. Surely, after Kilkenny and Waterford, Galway and Tipperary could only be an anti-climax?

Not at all, unbelievably. They gave us another brilliant game, full of twists and turns. Again we had four fantastic goals. This game went all the way as a contest and could easily have been another draw. The Tipp backs came out with a few key balls right at the end.

Bubbles and John McGrath couldn’t have come up with two goals at a better time. There’s a serious cut to Tipp this year, the way they saw it out down the straight.

Joe Canning going off at half-time was massive. I thought the big hit between him and Paudie Maher was fair and square. But you’d ask if that collision (and it was thunderous) had any effect on Joe’s hamstring trouble. 

There was a bit of talk in the commentary box. But, from the replays I saw there was no contact with Joe’s thigh. Both of them just went all out to win a particular ball.

It was terrible luck for Galway, because you’d regard a player like Cyril Donnellan as a complement to Joe Canning, a foil for him, rather than as a replacement for him. But that’s injury... You can’t really budget for them with top players.

It’s a cliche but we keep saying it because it’s true. Managers live and die by their big calls during a championship game. I thought Mick Ryan made a huge call in leaving on Brendan Maher, his captain, at midfield. 

For a long time in the second half, David Burke, the other captain and Brendan’s man, nearly ran the show outright. But Brendan got a hurl on a few crucial balls in the final minutes, and Mick’s call turned out sound. That’ll stand to them in the final.

For Galway, there’ll be nothing but disappointment for a long while. They’ll be sick. But there’s no doubt this group wanted to hurl for Micheal Donoghue. They left everything out there yesterday. They definitely have a future.

What a seven days of hurling... As good as I’ve ever seen. These games will stand to hurling for a long time. It’s Tipp and Kilkenny, as maybe was written in the stars. It’s a real pity that we won’t see one of the match-ups everyone was anticipating from last spring, Michael Breen on Michael Fennelly in an All-Ireland final. 

The news is not good on the Ballyhale man, which nobody wanted to hear, not even in Tipperary. To be fair, they are mad to beat a Kilkenny team as strong as possible.

I suppose there has to be a bit of a comedown after three extraordinary matches so close together. I know people talk about withdrawal symptoms! But we do have the Dublin and Galway U21s in another All Ireland semi-final. Both counties need a boost.

was stuck in traffic heading out the Holycross Road on Saturday evening when I posted a message on Facebook. ‘Wow other sports, tip your cap.’ I know I’m biased but I don’t care what sport you’ll see in the Olympics over the next week, you won’t see anything to touch what we were all privileged to witness on Saturday in Thurles.

The two O’Donovans are marvellous men to achieve what they did last Friday. There is something lovable about those guys, they have that unique Irish sense of roguery and lovely innocence. 

That wit and personality has elevated the O’Donovans in the minds of the Irish public as much as their raw talent but all of those pure Irish qualities were on show in waves in Thurles on Saturday; unbridled desire and bravery, passion, loyalty, the relentless pursuit of something so pure a billion euros couldn’t buy.

Magic.

Nobody backed down. Nobody gave up. There was one passage of play around the 17th minute when I counted seven hooks and blocks before Jamie Barron ended the hectic sequence of play with a point. 

Nobody would give anyone a shot at goal for love or money and yet we still ended up with 40 scores. Epic, epic stuff. A game of centimetres, not inches.

My heart goes out to Waterford. They probably deserved to take the game to extra-time but sport has a cruel way of twisting the knife. And when Kilkenny are involved, it feels like that knife has been driven hard and deep into your rib cage, leaving scars that will take an age to heal. 

Eoin Murphy had no right to take down that last ball. How many keepers would even have the balls to try and make that catch? Most would have let it over, or batted it away but Murphy’s only thought was of securing possession.

Centimetres.

That last passage of play encapsulated the evening’s drama. I didn’t think last week could be bettered, but it was. Of course the game was tactical. 

TJ Reid played most of the second half at left half-back but when the game is played at that intensity, when there is almost no fear for life and limb, tactics just segue into the ebb and flow and drama of an enthralling sport.

It was like the great unscripted. Waterford aren’t supposed to score goals. Kilkenny don’t concede them. And then we had four in 18 minutes. When Pauric Mahony stood over that last free, you wouldn’t have wanted any other player in that position. The shot was as straight as an arrow but it never had the legs. Then again, TJ missed an easier one a few minutes earlier. Nothing goes to script when the drama is this tense.

Waterford had huge support. Their players were brilliant. Some of their individual skill was a treasure. Austin Gleeson was hanging in the air under dropping balls like Michael Jordan. I’d say he’d catch a white mouse in a snow blizzard. Management did very little wrong but I thought Maurice Shanahan could have been introduced sooner. He had a massive effect when he came in. At the same time, how did Mark Bergin last as long as he did for Kilkenny?

Is that Brian Cody’s first time ever releasing a dummy team? It’s gas, desperate times calls for desperate measures. He was so pumped on the sideline that it reminded me of his demeanour against Galway in the 2004 qualifiers in Thurles when he was patrolling the line like an uncaged animal. 

He was in everyone’s faces on Saturday but the Waterford boys didn’t back down from him either. A lot of that was probably down to frustration around some decision-making from James McGrath. It was surprising that the three minutes of injury-time was only signalled at the end of the first minute.

Cody rolled the dice again. He put his key men in the battle zone and they all delivered. I felt so sorry for Mick Fennelly. The way both sets of supporters stood and applauded him off the field was an endorsement of his status as one of the absolute greats of the last 10 years.

Mick Dempsey’s part in the great Kilkenny odyssey is massive too. They were flat last week but all the freshness they were missing returned to their legs. Colin Fennelly was like an Olympic sprinter. 

People may have been questioning Derek McGrath’s reasoning all along for playing a sweeper but you saw the damage that could be done at full back with that much space, and on a player with that kind of pace on the turn. Even Mick Fennelly upset Tadgh de Burca with how he was moving in and out.

Before the game, Kilkenny stood together for the national anthem, something I had never seen before.

There was a defiance about them on Saturday. Eight days ago, they looked to be on their way out of this championship but they found a way. They found a way again on Saturday night. Because that is what they do.

I’ll be thinking of at least one trip into the Fleadh in Ennis this week. It’s some spell of hurling when you’d be thinking of the Fleadh as a means of getting your head back together.


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